Writing: how to improve your focus

SamuelJohnson
Samuel Johnson in close focus

It’s commonly mentioned by writers as a problem: keeping focus on the book you’re currently writing. It isn’t just the intrusion of other writing or everyday chores. More than ever, writers blame the ingress of social media caused by two pressures: firstly the attraction of seeing friends’ and family’s daily activities, with consequent need to like, comment, or even worse, engage in a to and fro dialogue; secondly, the constant emphasis on the importance of social media for marketing the books we write.

There is only one way round this problem. Limitation. In the same way that we curtail, if not curb, our pleasure in food and drink in order to escape obesity, we can avoid gluttonous social media activity.

Easiest to restrict family/friends to a time of day assigned to relaxation. Just best not to open those Facebook etc at other times. There’ll always be something to divert you. For marketing, wisest to schedule a set day and time for such work and avoid it at all other times.

Leonid_Pasternak_001

I wonder if Pasternak was having trouble focussing in this picture, or was tormented in sympathy with his characters?

Keeping focus on the book in process does not mean never doing anything else until it’s finished, however. You can take off for a break somewhere entirely different and yet keep your focus on your characters. Keep them and their problems in mind and relate what you hear and see to their situation.

For instance, working on my WWII trilogy, A Relative Invasion, I realised that my protagonist, Billy, had not been punished by his adversary, cousin Kenneth, for a well-meaning interference. Manipulative Kenneth would surely not let Billy get away scot free.  Taking time away from the computer, I set off to wander round an arboretum and get some fresh air (and fresh ideas). On the way, I listened to a radio programme about printing and book binding. The word ‘pigskin’ made me sit up. Of course! The pigs Billy loved and fed daily had been taken to the abattoir to Billy’s great distress. Kenneth could punish by giving Billy a pigskin wallet for Christmas.

Van_Gogh_-_Kauernder_Junge_mit_Sichel
Van Gogh

The arboretum itself made me realise that I hadn’t included much description of the boys’ surroundings beyond the initial one. How would they react to the countryside when evacuated away from the blackened buildings of London?

I listened to an interchange between some children nearby. The running and quarrelling suddenly stopped when one of them saw a squirrel burying nuts. It was vigorously stamping its feet, or that’s how it seemed to the younger child. She turned to her mother, ‘It’s having a tantrum!’  The other child laughed. A lovely moment, and one I could work at for hostility between my two boy characters.

There were other ideas, too, that came from this outing. These could be called ‘writing refreshments.’

I could have taken a break and thought of other things, but keeping my focus on my book didn’t stop me benefiting from this time away from the computer. In fact, I wrote more rapidly once I got home, all the new ideas fresh in my mind. As is often the way, one new idea helped others so that the narrative moved along.

Have any of you gained unexpected ideas through taking a break away from your desk?

GAZA. Sadly, not fiction.

REVIEW OF THE DRONE EATS WITH ME
Diaries from a city under fire
Atef-Abu Saif

israel-uav-butterfly
Israel-uav-butterfly

Comma Press publishes new writing and has championed the short story. Most excitingly, it has brought translated works to the wider world. With well-chosen and diverse titles, it gives insight into lives from little known places via the best of short stories.

Gaza is ‘foreign’ to the outside world in the full meaning of the word. Few readers live in an area constantly surrounded by force from land, sea and air. What is known of Gaza comes from news of its wars and accusations of attacks from both Palestine and Israel. And so it was Comma Press’s wish to show what it means to be a Palestinian “through stories of ordinary characters struggling to live with dignity in what many have called ‘the largest prison in the world’”. The resulting anthology The Book of Gaza was edited by Atef Abu Saif, one of the authors. Grimly, as it was published, 51 days of another war began.

During Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’, Saif wrote a diary entry each day in English. Compiled by Comma Press, The Drone Eats with Me, has two meanings. The author likens the strikes the drone makes to the sating of its hunger (for lives). Secondly, the constant presence of the drones culminates in targeted strikes which appear to coincide with the two main meals of the Gazan day. Although there are battleships whose guns strike the shore, armoured tanks at the borders and F16s bombing key buildings, it is the drones that dominate the horrors of the narration. Whereas the bombs may decimate entire buildings, they are less discriminate, more neutral.

A Hunter Joint Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in flight during a Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) training exercise at Fallon Naval Air Station (NAS), Nevada (NV), during exercise DESERT RESCUE XI. The Hunter is an Israeli multi-role short-range UAV system in service with the US Army (USA). The exercise is a joint service Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) training exercise hosted by the Naval Strike and Warfare Center, designed to simulate downed aircrews, enabling CSAR related missions to experiment with new techniques in realistic scenarios.
A Hunter Joint Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

It is the frequent mention of a single operator sitting at his computer control picking out his distant target that shocks the reader. According to Saif, the child in the street, the family sitting at dinner, the young motorcyclists have all been deliberately targeted. The drones supervise and threaten even during truces. They have sensors which provide an all-seeing eye to select targets anywhere in Gaza.

“Drone operators can clearly see their targets on the ground and also divert their missiles after launch,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. . . . “Drones carry an array of advanced sensors, often combining radars, electro-optical cameras, infrared cameras, and lasers. These sensors can provide a clear image in real time of individuals on the ground during day and night, with the ability to distinguish between children and adults. . . .The missile launched from a drone carries its own cameras that allow the operator to observe the target from the moment of firing to impact. If doubts arise about a target, the drone operator can redirect the weapon elsewhere.” (Precisely Wrong, June 2009)

How to review a book like this – a first-hand and on-the-spot account of life during another episode of Israeli/Palestinian conflict? The diary is not a political invective, although it is taxing to do the work justice without making political comment. It is a piece of history in the making, but cannot be put in context without countless pages of unbiassed analysis. The writer is a journalist, and the book can be discussed as journalism, but he is not on location, he lives in Gaza, he was born there, he knows no other place as home and he is an integral part of Israeli’s enemy. He writes from the guts; the endangered man unable to protect those he knows and those he loves.

If this book were fiction, we might criticise that the crisis is not well placed, such as three quarters of the way into the narrative, that this book is all crisis. But it is non-fiction, and the 51 days offer little other than crisis. The reader is on the edge of his seat dreading the next bomb will be a direct hit on the narrator and his family. As it is, he ‘only’ loses a step-brother, whereas other individuals lose entire families and some witness their children decapitated, their loved ones mangled into lumps of flesh by the bombs. The dreadfulness of family losses and gruesome deaths Saif records with a kind of paralysed dissociation. A child sees his father and uncle smattered into merged body bits and his family “are having difficulty calming him down.” Were it fiction we might criticise the lost opportunity for impassioned words over the horrors described. But because it is no fantasy, a dream-like state may be the only way to move through the hours of onslaught.

The journalist risks his life walking out in the evening to see friends, to check on the progress of the war – that is, the extent of devastation during the previous hours and its exact locations. Keeping a routine seems essential. He is constantly aware that he is “alive by chance” and that he will die by chance and wonders how many chances he has used up. His days suffering the fear of annihilation, his nights tormented with the noise of bombing and the nightmares where he dreams he is running through it with his little daughter, all result in a dazed confusion between what disaster has happened and what might happen. His awakenings take time before he can accept that is truly still alive.

Meanwhile, farmers cannot risk collecting produce from their fields, the souks dare not open, housewives rush out to buy anything they can during any lull but they cannot stockpile because electricity is only available for an unpredictable hour or so. The mother struggles to keep the five children safe by not allowing them out and the reader imagines her coping with all of them in a confined space, day after fearful day, often in the dark. But this family are lucky. They are only sharing with her father. The Palestinians support each other lending each other flats, crowding, whole extended families of ten or more, into a relative’s small house. Most go to the accepted places of ‘safety’ in the centre of Gaza, avoiding the tanks on the borders, the warships at sea. 100,000 already live in Jabalia Camp’s 1.4 square metres and now many more rush in, many made homeless by the bombing. They take refuge in United Nations schools. But bombs fall there too.

Saif notes carefully the death toll of each day but he “doesn’t want to be a number”.  Throughout the book he adds footnotes naming those killed: the four boys playing football on the beach, the men in the cafe, the entire families wiped out by a single strike. Perhaps naming them is some attempt to honour them and properly respect their death. Funerals are too dangerous for many to attend, stretchers carry body parts not bodies, even the cemetery – a strange source of perceived threat – is bombed, so that the dead “die twice”.

Saif’s 11-year-old son has now lived through four wars. The four sons and baby daughter understand little of the bombardment around them. They know that they cannot leave the flat where they have taken refuge often for days on end and that their parents argue about whether after dark, the older boys may go with their father a four minute walk away. Their desire: to play computer games at the internet cafe – one of the few places where there is fairly reliable electricity.  gazangameIt takes little imagination to guess what they play on the computers. The chosen game is unlikely to be Pacman, although that game closely resembles the daily life of a Gazan as described by Saif. And while they play the computer games their father is preoccupied by the computer operator of the drone and what he might choose to target.

If this were a work of fiction, I would liken it to Golding’s Pincher Martin as a work describing a demise.  Pincher fights a lone and hopeless battle for survival, gradually becoming aware of the real nature of the struggle he is engaged in.

Throughout Saif’s daily account, the reader searches for meaning behind the onslaught the Gazans suffer. How far do the Israelis mean to cause this suffering? The Telegraph interviewed an Israeli commander. Major Yair stressed how he avoids innocent deaths. Hamas operatives, he says, routinely exploit Israeli restraint by hiding behind civilians. “It is sometimes frustrating because you feel that you’re fighting with your hands tied. There are a lot of situations where you see your targets, but you will not engage because they’re next to kindergartens, because they’re driving with their wives and their kids.” Should Yair read Saif’s book, what disenchantment for him to learn how signally this belief in restraint has failed. The Independent’s data gives virtually 1/4 of the total killed in that episode of the war as children.

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_The_Difficult_Lesson_(1884)
The Difficult Lesson, William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)

The Drone Eats With Me is a testament to history not learned. I need not say more.

To read Saif’s book is to marvel that its pages were not blasted into smithereens together with its author before it was complete. But the miracle – the win – is to have survived. The suggestion is that survival was not the intention of the attacker. Perhaps to adjust, the miracle is to have survived this time.

Comma Press have ensured that a first-hand account of that war will do so. Others can then read The Difficult Lesson.

(c) 2015 All of these blog posts are the copyright of Rosalind Minett. Not to be reproduced without prior written permission, or without crediting me as the original author and providing a link to the original article on this website.

Writing/painting: pollination

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baldwin.mykansaslibrary.org

Some writers complain of writers’ block. Perhaps they are due for pollination from other sources.

I’ve written before about how cross-fertilization within the arts is something to seek out and to treasure. A writer, performing artist, teacher, does him/herself no good by constantly giving out and never feeding the self. Exposure to other art forms stimulates unexpected associations that would not otherwise occur.  Learning the techniques involved in these arts achieves even more than just appreciating the painting, dance, acting or exposition. You can imagine the reception of new stimuli neurologically: neural pathways highlighted and speeding like electric sparks across the cortex. For a writer, new associations, especially unexpected ones, enrich the language that later emerges under the pen.

This post results from participation in a wonderful watercolour workshop arranged by Pelisande courses near Stroud.

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A small section of the participants at work

An original idea for a botanical painting workshop, Bugs and Botanical provided two outstanding tutors with complementary skills to tutor on the topical subject of pollination. 15 participants learned from RHS gold medal-winning botanical artist Julia Trickey (plants) and Cath Hodsman, ASB, Natural History Museum wildlife artist (insects).

The two artists chose aquilegia as the flower to examine and paint because of its unique method of pollination. The nectar lies in the tip of the curled spurs, coyly tucked away at the furthest point from the seductively displayed pollen on the pistils. labelled aquilegia

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Julia Trickey painted in session

Aquilegia, a beast to paint, is like an unfaithful wife. It can be approached for its nectar from the front (by humming hawkmoth) and from the rear (by bumble bee). The hawkmoth zooms into the front entrance legitimately, showing off its tremendously long proboscis (as long as its body). The aquilegia meanly keeps its nectar as far away from its front entrance as can be, but the hawkmoth can reach it, hovering humming-bird style at the flower’s mouth.

HummingmothCath
Cath Hodsman

Here is Cath’s painting, showing the hovering wings and proboscis’ tell-tale golden cache, post-visit, held away from its body.

Under the microscope the fluffy body is more like a loofah, quite rough in texture. The wing has minute overlapping segments like the  tessellation of a Roman mosaic.

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Cath Hodsman

Not to be outdone by the moth’s super-long proboscis, the bumblebee, displaying no shame about its lesser member, flies straight to the back of the flower and drills through the tube, filling its sac with nectar. This means it gathers no pollen on its furry body, a job carried out unwittingly by the moth. For its efficient pollination work on most other flowers, the bee is the ultimate in hairiness, even its eyes have hairs.

Under the powerful microscopes, the worthy bee, post nectar-gathering, is weighed down by its enormous load, carried like panniers either side of its thorax. Its complex eye has a surface like a fine metal grille. Not enough to say ‘I have eyes in the back of my head’ it has enormous eyes, comparable to the cheeks on a pig, plus three simple eyes, in the middle and either side of the top of its head. It must never stop looking.

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Cath demonstrated her technique for painting every detail in the microscopic accuracy for which she is acclaimed, and is used by Kew Gardens as scientific illustrator. Her painting is a matter of many painstaking layers, very fine brushes, a steady hand and tiny movements: dots for the bee and dashes for the moth. Her drawings are the amazing result of reproducing what is seen when enlarged very many times. When a writer can portray a character or setting in that detail, readers can feel they are truly entering the lives of those in the narrative.

It was a privilege to listen to Cath’s extensive knowledge of wildlife, and equally to watch the exquisite painting of flowers by Julia. Under her hand the complex form of the aquilegia came to life, petal by petal and not just with great attention to accuracy but with incomparable interpretation. Before painting, Julia examines the plant in detail so that its structure is as clear as the light and shade on its form.

JuliaTPainting wet on wet, Julia’s not so small brush delivers a touch of colour that slithers into place, The brush comes away leaving a perfect petal behind it, immaculate edges, veins, light, shade and shape. Note the plate beside her. It indicates how little paint she uses; she uses the cloth in front of her as often. Julia has videos of her techniques, as well as her beautifully illustrated books so that those who attend her courses can follow her techniques at home.  http://tiny.cc/76n1yx

During the 2 1/2 day course, participants worked intensively on their own attempts at both flower and insect, straining their eyes to capture the details that make the difference between a cursory and an informed detailed illustration. Fortunately, Pelisande courses include delicious food. Participants went home enriched in mind and body, if cross-eyed.

The humming hawkmoth pollinates jasmine, honeysuckle, gardenia, pittosporum, plumeria, oleander, star-jasmine and flowering tobacco amongst others. Writers would love to think that their words were that widely imbibed.

Among most species that breed in water, the males and females each shed their sex cells into the water and external fertilization takes place.  Ideas and images in our environment are cast out in different artistic forms. They are absorbed, then mentally reworked into the receiver’s mental system. In the case of fiction writers, a story emerges mostly many years later.

Among terrestrial breeders, fertilization is internal, and the parallel for the writer might be the unconscious adoption of behavioural tendencies that can come from early relationships. These then enrich the development of characters in the writer’s stories.

In reproduction, by recombining genetic material from two parents, a greater range of variability for natural selection to act upon, increases a species’ capacity to adapt to environmental change. So in writing, by reworking imageries from different art forms, something new can emerge that has greater meaning to readers than the unpollinated material that went before.

 

 

© Copyright 2015 Rosalind Minett

 

Where do your words come from?

indoeuropean-language-family-tree

 

Where do your words come from? Here’s the tree showing the main roots. When you eventually find the little twig that is English, it’s the sort of twig size that might be chopped off by the gardener to encourage strength in more viable branches. So English is quite a little victor in the fight to receive the most oxygen.

Such a diagram helps enormously to conceptualise the place of one language in comparison with another and the relationship between apparently unlike languages. I found this diagram from bing images. Later, I found ethnologue.com, a site full of rich information.

However, I didn’t just come upon these randomly. This is why I love Stumbleupon. It is a serendipity resources. It is full of such excellent information and illustration (provided you make full use of the thumbs up and thumbs down).  After listing your categories of interest – mine are diverse – you are offered pages fairly randomly within those categories. According to whether you give them thumbs up or not, your preferences are further refined by the site. Warning, don’t do this too much or you may miss items that you had not realised were within your interest.

You see a page that sparks your interest, and off you go on another research journey that might, at some time, come in useful for one of your books.

word

I originally saw a page from Vox with a wonderful chart by Minna Sundberg (which I can’t legally reproduce here). This led me to research out the further sources.

See Sundberg and her chart:

The origins of English  —–        Minna Sundberg

Where English comes from

English, like more than 400 other languages, is part of the Indo-European language family, sharing common roots not just with German and French but with Russian, Hindi, Punjabi, and Persian. This beautiful chart by Minna Sundberg, a Finnish-Swedish comic artist, shows some of English’s closest cousins, like French and German, but also its more distant relationships with languages originally spoken far from the British Isles such as Farsi and Greek.

When readers ask ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ The answer is often ‘from reading’.  And then that reading leads to more reading . . .

And for the writer, to richer writing!

 

 

Bulgarian fiction

Bulgariaborder

In Bulgaria, the short story is not a lesser literary form as it is in the UK. Quite the reverse, it is highly valued. There are some fine Bulgarian writers of short stories and this post concerns just one.

Miroslav Penkov‘s short story collection, East of the West, is the most powerful of reads. We are taken into the heart and bowels of Bulgaria through the voices and situations of the various characters. This is very fine writing, and not just the name story. That won the BBC short story award of 2012 (by unanimous vote of the judges).

The story is full of symbolism. A village is divided by river and that river is used as a boundary between west and east at the end of World War II.  There is jealousy caused between the villagers because those on the west bank have access to western materialism. The eastern bank villagers long for jeans and Nike trainers, however worn-out.

The villagers are allowed to meet once a year, but they try to keep contact other times by shouting across at its narrowest point, or, in the case of young lovers, by swimming to the centre and risking shots from the armed guards. The villagers once tried to maintain their identity by diverting the river so that it kept the village undivided. The result was a flooding, the church being completely drowned. The protagonist is encouraged by his loving, but aggressive cousin, to meet her at the submerged cross of this church.

His sister makes a similar swim to meet her fiancé, to show the ‘diamonds’ for her wedding the next day. Both are shot by guards. They are dressed in their finest, dead, for two funerals, each on its own  bank of the river.

Somehow, in the face of his own love and career disappointments, the protagonist must move on, a metaphor for Bulgaria.

EastpfWest

 

 

It seems opportune, at the very time that the number of Bulgarian immigrants (amongst others) is being agonised over, that the harsh lifestyle Bulgarians suffer is brought to the consciousness of other nations. It may be that it takes someone raised in the culture, but career-boosted outside of it, to write about Bulgaria with that telescope of understanding.

Penkov studied so hard that his English was excellent by the time he reached the US to further his studies. Therefore, his stories have the advantage of being written in English, not translated. Each of these stories is entirely absorbing and thought-provoking. The choice of words often holds a significance that points to larger issues. It was sobering to find that several stories were written when the author was very young. No-one, we would think in the West, should have inside knowledge or direct experience of such dark matters: the hanging of dissidents, the enforced changing of names, the lack of medical aid to severely ill people, the poverty and hunger, the lack of corporate compassion for the young or needy.

Penkov manages to get within the head of young and old Bulgarians, male and female. Filtered through the narrative is the history of a once-strong country beleaguered by political discord and powerful nations. The consequent poverty and desperation that cause alienation and anarchism come through these stories in a way that is fresh and bleeding.

The stories are both warm and dark, some so dark that it is difficult to read on. Why turn to fantasy and horror when more real events are offered here?  For instance, the dead (accidentally killed?) child being lifted into position for a family photograph. Or the almost dead vagrant on the church plinth being readied, or is it desecrated, for eternity? An adolescent with his sidekick, running loose, alienated, anarchic and yet retaining some humanity, ends up in the church tower pissing down on his compatriots who are literally jumping to political command – a darkly humorous message.

The tragic and emotionally neglected young girl, her head shaved so that she can be like her dead brother, is trained to make bagpipes, their soft section the nearest to a comforting breast her world provides.  When her father is arrested, she is left to care for her terminally ill mother and ultimately is left alone with her bagpipe. The reader can almost hear its plaintive sound.

A young man goes against home politics by being in America, wars with his grandfather who is eventually proved to be in the more enviable (Bulgarian) position. The Bulgarian desire to receive good education, career opportunity, a decent lifestyle, conflicts with all those values and close family ties that make life worthwhile.

The yan that drives and threatens to destroy the individual has a meaning beyond mere envy. It almost has a personality of its own, defining the Bulgarian and almost, his culture.

Rijpe_mispels

Like the medlars prevalent in the countryside of Bulgaria, these tales are bitter but necessary to assuage (literary) hunger. We can understand why Bulgarians, despite loving their country, need to emigrate to gain the basic necessities of life.

I feel the richer for reading these stories, and their content will stay with me.Penkov is due to publish a novel shortly. It is something to look forward to.

Tenderness vital for child development

FILM REVIEW

Last night I saw a French Canadian film, Monsieur Lazhar. It was one of those films that immerse you completely in the watching, and fails to leave you for many hours, perhaps days afterwards.

FILMMONSIEUR_LAZHAR

Lazhar is an Algerian who sidles into an unexpectedly vacant teacher’s job. The Head is pretty desperate and has no applicants, so that when he presents himself, obliging and immediately available, she takes him on. His class of 11-12 year olds in this small primary school in a suburb are trying to adjust to the suicide of their teacher, found hanging in their classroom by the scamp of the class. They quickly take him to their hearts and their grades go up as he stretches them academically. We realise he hasn’t the teacher training to rely upon. He starts with a dictation from Balzac. However, his total commitment to the children pays off.

The plot unravels to reveal why Lazhar needed the job and his especial sensitivity to the children’s feelings. We also find the effect the suicide has on the different children in the class and their various perceptions of events. The teachers, the Head, one of the children gradually reveal what caused the suicide.

It is a beautifully written and directed film (Philippe Falardeau) with memorable acting from all actors, including the children. It was good to see how each child was individually portrayed, not as a class mass. The quality of acting gained from two of the children was exceptional. I also enjoyed the clever and amusing small part of the drama teacher making a play for Lazhar. The scene where she hopefully has him to dinner was delicately and subtly managed.

The themes of this film are far bigger than expected. What should we say or not say to children who have witnessed a terrible event. How should we deal with their distress and possible misunderstandings? The film shows the tension between the ‘Let’s move on, help them to forget it’ and the opposite view. One child uses her oral presentation assignment to throw the whole subject open, putting a very different slant on the event.

HANDWBIRD

Bigger still, and a subject that badly needs much public re-think, is the zero tolerance policy for touching of any sort. The sports teacher has the children running in circles (literally) because he cannot help them climb, or mount the ‘horse’ any more. The other teachers reflect on the impossibility of disciplining or restraining students. Lazhar, never having been trained as a teacher, taps the back of a child’s head for throwing an object at another child. (Sackable offence?) Ultimately, we learn what happened when the dead teacher comforted a boy who was crying.

The outfall for good will and love is undeserved punishment, but the last shot of the film makes its emotional point.

The Dalai Lama advised that tenderness is vital for a child’s healthy development. How sad if teachers and others must withhold what they see is sorely needed.

hands

Ballet teachers are in difficulties; no longer can they correct a body position, such as a leg in arabesque, (“higher, turn it out”) with a push or point at the part of the body needing fine adjustment. This kind of touching, often not gentle, was formerly regarded as a sexless and necessary part of communication.

On the wider front, nowadays, it is felt that children cannot be allowed to trust automatically. Unknown adults must be mistrusted automatically.

father-holding-handFor this reason, as well as the wonderful direction, acting and literary feel of the film, I hope ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ will gain a wider audience. We all need to re-think.

Perhaps it is down to writers to help things along.  Falardeau has certainly done his bit.

REVIEW: Dark Silence – Volpi

We don’t see enough of Latin American writers in the UK. I am glad to review this literary novel by Jorge Volpi (Mexico) published by Swan Isle Press and seamlessly translated by Olivia Maciel.

Dark Silence

When you know a novel has suicide as a central focus, you wait to find the right – the strongest – frame of mind before reading it. This was true of me, and so it is some months since I received this impressive work for independent review from Swan Isle Press. Fresh from reading the captivating ‘To the Beautiful North’ with its irrepressible characters (by Luis Alberto Urrea, another Mexican), I took up this well-presented volume with its haunting, probably haunted, portrait on its dust cover.

It is a hard read: hard in the sense that it is intellectually challenging; hard emotionally; hard in tone and use of language as opposed to soft and fluid; hard in its relentless move towards facing death.

The author, Jorge Volpi, is one of the originators of the Crack movement in Mexico, ‘crack’ or fracture – a break from what is trivial or superficial, and from the established magical realism of authors such as Marquez, well loved in the UK. Perhaps ‘crack’ is apposite with regard to Volpi’s novel since it centres upon the cracking up of an esteemed poet and chemist, Jorge Cuesta, and ultimately of the narrator. We use ‘cracked’ or ‘crackers’ to denigrate people who have become mentally ill. Cuesta’s ‘crack’ connects with his ambivalent sexual identity. His attempt at a fusion between the male/female ended with self-emasculation. But more than that, he was obsessed with catching the moment to the point of defeating time, perhaps finding a crack through which he could pass in order to do so.  “Time doesn’t stop, but passes.”

volpi
Jorge Volpi

If magical realists such as Marquez write about incidents, characters, and settings that could not occur within the physical world as we know it, Volpi straddles a world in which the reader is witness of what seems to be occurring but is in fact fiction, and is informed of a parallel set of events that are factual. Boundaries are deliberately blurred. The narrator is Jorge, like the author, like the poet.  His friend, Eloy, has the same name as the author’s father and Cuesta’s colleague.

Jorge, a poorly paid writer, overhears mention of Cuesta’s name and suicide following self-mutilation. He tells us at least twice that sharing the christian name hurts his life twice. It seems to place him under a responsibility to tell Cuesta’s tale.

The novel begins as Jorge visualizes in great detail the last agonizing days of Cuesta’s life. He gives an unnervingly empathetic account.

Jorge Cuesta is not really known in UK.  His achievements in two professions were remarkable, yet the acme of his inventions appears to have coincided with his mental deterioration.  The wisdom and despair of his poetry seep through the novel as Jorge searches out the poet’s point of view. “I’m searching for Cuesta’s not my own.”

While immersing himself in researching Cuesta’s life, Jorge listlessly follows his own. He is in an unrewarding relationship, unrewarding for his partner as well as for himself. Volpi’s unpicking of this relationship is masterly. He shows us the selfishness of both partners and their unwillingness, not inability, to engage in the other’s raison d’etre and preoccupations. It is a hostile dependency that fails to improve or to end.

Jorge amasses all the information he can about Cuesta, studies the poetry, takes note of the inventions, imagines the extent to which Cuesta loved, believed and understood. His scholarly and increasingly emotional investigation includes tracking down the two important women in Cuesta’s life, his lover and his wife. Increasingly, the reader notes the parallels between the two Jorges’ existences, and despairs in his obsessive moves towards repeating the pattern.

In the process of his research, Jorge’s own life becomes increasingly deranged.  He believes that if he could fuse male with female he could preserve the moment of ecstasy, could break through the force-field of time. Volpi skilfully shows the intricacies of his thought pattern.  The reader becomes concerned for Jorge’s self-destructive behaviour, his immersion in dark thoughts.

He visits the hospital where Cuesta lived his last days before hanging himself. The current patients are circling around a central flower bed. He asks a nurse why they do this. She answers, ‘Perhaps they want to exit time.’

Jorge’s work to reveal Cuesta’s ‘meaning’ culminate in scholarly articles. These are met with ridicule and condemnation by his intellectual colleagues and the academic community. This is devastating not only to his self-esteem, but to the chance of conveying the central concept via Cuesta’s biography. Volpi, in the voice of the narrator, sees Cuesta as one of the “fugitive poets that favoured a clandestine existence rather than submit themselves to the absurd rules of time.”

Meanwhile, Jorge’s refusal to commit to an emotional and supportive involvement with his partner causes her to leave him. She has been no better able to provide an emotional investment in Jorge. She goes away with her former lover despite her sudden realization that she loves Jorge.

Left on his own, the last vestiges of normality leave him or perhaps it is more accurate to say that his last hold on himself as a unique individual drifts away. He is in despair.

A major strength of this novel is the economic and skilful delineation of the process of thought and the coming apart of a tortured mind.

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 Lovecraft – ‘Despair”

Cuesta waited to end his life until he had written his poem, Song to a Mineral God.  Early in the novel, this is discussed by Jorge and his friend, Eloy. With premonition, Jorge states “I’m going to write an essay -”  In his last moments he does so. It is an account of his feelings. He is fully aware of the irony that this comes too late to save his love relationship. He writes his essay before repeating the act and manner of Cuesta’s death.

The suicide of  Cuesta, poet and chemist, was a great tragedy.  Without academic recognition, Jorge’s struggle to understand Cuesta and convey to the world the significance of the ‘moment within the moment’, the implacability of time, now has no hope of standing the test of time. He is defeated by it and faces death in spite of its dark silence.

Scottish Showcase: Review of The Grind

Today’s post is a review I wrote for ShortStops, a literary online site that celebrates the short story.

The Grind is an online journal showcasing creative work from across Scotland had its first issue recently. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this as can be seen from the following:

THE GRIND – A NEW CREATIVE JOURNAL

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It was enlivening to read the first issue of The Grind, an online magazine showcasing short fiction and visual art from across Scotland. The Grind will give new artists and writers the opportunity to have their work seen by an interested audience. Always ahead in the field of Education, Scotland has its own voice and personality, perhaps insufficiently seen internationally.

Some of the contributors will be completely unknown, others have already won acclaim for their work. I enjoyed all the contributions but can only mention a few in a brief review.

The first issue is certainly as diverse as the parts of that country. Dramatic treescapes from Jamie McFarlane open the magazine. This is followed by some poetic gems. I particularly liked Dreamscape by Seonaid Francis, short but lyrical, and delicately to the point.

The tone is very different for the arresting architectural and life-style statements by Declan Malone. These photographs both appealed to the eye while depressing the spirit, and as spatial configurations, they somehow sum up a visual experience for a significant proportion of the population.

Also memorable, are the very disturbing psychological portraits by Bryan M Ferguson. Somewhat filmically, he portrays what is happening and has happened to his subjects whom he allows to speak for themselves. His use of black/white contrast add to the effect upon us.

There is flash fiction in this issue, as well as poetry. I would pick out the haunting set of mini ghost stories by David Flood. These are less fantasy than a representation of the living loss for the ordinary person of those departed. The short pieces held together well as a set.

In the same vein, I loved the haunting shadowy photographs of TV Eye, like flickers of memory. Some photographs please as a work of art, some as technique. These appeared to strike some new ground, touching on half formed thoughts or minimally perceived movements.

In strong contrast, the impressive and central work NMDA by CD Shade is an intellectual presentation. It uses text, rhythm and diagram to present a visual representation of the glutamate receptor and its functions. This work really needed larger pages for readers to appreciate the scientific, cognitive, language and life implications it draws attention to. I enlarged each section in order to read it properly. NMDA is in essence a scientific poem, unique in its style. I am sure it will receive the attention it deserves .

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This is a stimulating and exciting magazine. I did wonder if a different title would benefit it; a hydrophonics magazine has been using it for some time. Otherwise, only one criticism – the layout sometimes made it difficult to determine whose work I was seeing, so that I had to return to the Contents page. The author’s name, often written very small, hovered between pages. One artist framed his work, and this made for much easier viewing, especially on a tablet.

The talented writers and artists present a range of themes and genres in this first issue of The Grind. If there are to be changes in the later issues, I hope there will be a chosen theme each time. It will be exciting to see how the different individuals respond to this within their own medium and style.

I shall be looking out for Issue 2.

First published on www.ShortStops

Starting a Novel – 10 points

 

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Are you starting to write a novel? Yes, it’s hard. Really, it’s best just to press on with it rather than tell people about it. There will be time for that when you’re finished.

Here are 10 points to consider. You can waste so much time in the early stages of starting a novel when you should be just getting that important first draft down. Before listing these, one thing that will help you above all others, is to buy Scrivener. At around £45.00 it’s the best purchase I’ve ever made and if I’d had it years ago, I would have had a longer life and lived more of it! It organizes all your writing and avoids all those hours searching for previous drafts, short notes you’d made on a character or setting and so on. It will considerably help your structure. You can even trial it free.

Let’s say you’re well past the ‘thinking about writing a novel.’ You have the germ of the plot and have written enough to imagine the finished work in your hand. Download the trial of Scrivener and start building your chapters, or scenes within the chapters. (iTunes has how-to videos).

Now consider these ten points.

1. Write your target quota each day before entering any social media site. Social media diverts you, it is time-consuming and will seriously cut in to your allotted writing time.  Scrivener provides a progress signpost, showing how well you are meeting your target.

2.  Write from your instinct before reading any writing advice on style. This is to ensure it is your voice that emerges on the page. Texts on the craft of writing are best read before or between writing novels. The analytical task is best kept separate from the creative one of starting to write a novel.

3.  Similarly, only seek feedback when you have planned and written a substantial section. It is your novel from your imagination and experience. Others’ views and suggestions when you are writing the first draft will confuse that first push to get the story down.

4.  Only seek feedback from other writers. Readers’ views are wonderful, but only when your novel is published or ready to publish.

5.  Stop and decide where the plot is going one third of the way through. You might write the end at this point.

6.  Lie in bed and hear your characters’ voices clearly. Feel their conflicts and listen in to their conversations.

7.   When you are ready to read your first draft, print it out. Highlight the sections you’re unhappy with in blue. Scrivener allows for you to mark your chapters or scenes with colours according to how near they are to ‘finished.’

8.   Beyond halfway, read the first and last lines of every chapter. This is a way of seeing a ‘want to read on’ for your future readers.

9.   Your own voice and writing style will be uppermost in your mind.  Read a highly rated novel – with a very different plot from yours – while you take a break. High quality writing is privilege to read. Each such work has some impact on your own developing skill.

10.   Care about your characters and write their future… and above all, get on with your writing NOW

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Chinese short stories

Shi Cheng -Short Stories from Urban China– edited by Liu Ding, Yinghua Lu and Ra Page

It was purely coincidental that just as I finished reading the last story in this collection, the government announced a relaxation of visa restrictions to Chinese nationals with the rejoinder that British attitudes towards the Chinese might be altered. Notwithstanding the human rights issues, I had never expected that those would characterize the national psyche. I have never visited China so had little knowledge. What struck me in reading these several stories was a sense of familiarity with the humour and irony of the authors.

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This collection gives a rare flavour of China. However, the Introduction is just as important. The story of the circumstances in which the collection came about is fascinating and itself gives some insight into Chinese life. As the Introduction explained, each author in this collection is already highly rated in China if unknown in the UK. Each story comes from a different city in China, with its own climate and atmosphere. The characters range from those on the far fringe of respectability to those who have enjoyed an excellent education.

To do the book justice, each story really deserves to be reviewed individually, but I have compromised with my favourites.

Wittily, Jie Chen writes about a girl `rushing’ to prevent a murder. Her sense of urgency is constantly hampered by her make-up, double-checking of door locks, street sales of passport/ diary/dagger while simultaneously she mentally constructs scenarios for her friend’s crisis. It is a very amusing ‘literary chick-lit’ in which we learn something of the inconveniences and hazards in Chengdu. Josh Sternberg needs congratulating for his translation: he captures ditziness in an way immediately recognizable in the UK.

He does an equally good job on Zhang Zhihua’s story, a clever association between the agonizing wisdom tooth which should be removed and the state of the owner’s marriage. Sternberg manages to make clear the play on a Chinese word which means either `childish’ or `wisdom’ without spoiling the narrative style of the tale.

Hang Dong’s beautifully written story, `This Moron is Dead’ is the ultimate in bleak irony, social comment and literary style. I loved his use of cherry blossom as a symbol on several levels. It only exists on one street in the city; it only blossoms very briefly – a reference to past Japanese intrusion?

The Chinese sense of humour is best shown by Diaou Dou’s `Squatting’, which had me laughing out loud – inappropriately, as I was in the dentist’s waiting room. The earnest educated group aims to benefit their community by polite approaches to those in power. The description of their efforts and the authoritarian outcomes, although hilarious, gives a flavour of everyday life and difficulties in Shenyang. Perhaps all our wars could be solved by the use of ridicule. Diaou Dou’s writing reminded me of Jonathan Swift.

In Xu Zechen’s `Wheels are Round’, the poverty and life-style of labourers on the fringe of Beijing is told with a hilarity just short of bitterness. The mechanics look towards the, for them, unattainable city where largesse falls from the sky and fortunes lie awaiting to be picked up from the pavement. With months of ingenuity the main character pieces together a car, the zenith of his ambition, using scrap from the garage where he works and is consistently defrauded. The car’s fortune is shown with the irony that characterizes these writers.

Altogether, it was the irony and irrepressible humour that gave me such a warm feeling of kindred spirit.

Most readers will surely enjoy these urban tales by masterful Chinese writers as much as I did. There aren’t enough short story collections on the bookshelves of libraries and bookshops. Comma Press is benefiting the reading public by seeking to remedy this situation.

The paperback is available from Amazon, or better still, from your local independent bookseller. I bought it from Mr B’s Emporium in Bath:

  • Publisher: +Comma Press (30 April 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 190558346X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1905583461